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Cover Story: Easy Giving
And…How Early Volunteering Builds Empathy
By Mike Saucier
Necessity is the mother of invention. That age-old proverb applies to the creation of nonprofit organizations as well.
Families Giving Back, which helps parents engage kids in volunteering at a young age, is the result of a search over five years ago by Lisa Geyser and Alex Sklar, who sought to volunteer alongside their children. The two Phoenix residents met at the North Central Parenting Group and have sets of boys around the same age.
They wanted to show their kids the importance of giving back and participate in the activity with them. They wanted to make giving a part of all of their lives, with the shared experience serving as a powerful way to reinforce philanthropic values.
So the idea emerged: What if they created a way for families to give back, to make it convenient for the parents, the children and the nonprofit to help others?
“People are very generous and they want to give but they just don’t know how,” Geyser said. “If you’re a busy mom and look on the computer for an hour and you can’t find a way to volunteer with your children then you’re probably not going to do it. Because that’s what we tried to do.”
They founded Families Giving Back in 2012 and since then the nonprofit has hosted 100 or so events and totaled between 1,500-2,000 volunteer hours a year. It has led events with some of the most recognized nonprofit organizations in the Valley, including Phoenix Children’s Hospital, St. Vincent de Paul, Valley of the Sun United Way, Free Arts for Abused Children of AZ, Keep Phoenix Beautiful and Banner Cardon Children’s Medical Center, benefiting causes that are dear to Geyser and Sklar: children and well-being. The Families Giving Back model has worked so well they now get calls from nonprofits around the country that have heard about its success.
Theirs was the first organization in the history of both St. Mary’s Food Bank and Phoenix Children’s Hospital to volunteer on-site with children under the age of 12 and 16 respectively. Whether it’s hosting a sock drive, cleaning up trash or readying Thanksgiving meals, the events serve a practical purpose — they produce a tangible end product that serves a need.
But there is also something happening beneath the surface at the events. The kids who attend begin to develop more empathy.
They start to get the helping habit.
For example, The Wall Street Journal conducted an email discussion among experts on the topic of “How to Raise Your Child to Be a Philanthropist.” Alison Powell, senior director at the Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit consulting group for philanthropists, wrote as part of the discussion: “Embedded in philanthropy is often the concept of empathy, a critical social and emotional skill. Ultimately, if parents value philanthropy and wish to support empathy development in their children, it is likely they will want to pass this value on to their children.”
Families Giving Back checked two boxes for Geyser and Sklar: It provided simple opportunities for families to spend time giving back to their community and gave them a chance to shape their children to be the type of kids, as Geyser said, whose first instinct will be to help a child who has fallen, not laugh at them.
Kids who attend their volunteer events beam with pride and a sense of responsibility. On a recent Saturday morning at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, a hundred or so parents and children were busy fashioning cards and door hangers and assembling arts and crafts for young patients. Assembly lines of parents side by side with kids filled the room. A buzz of upbeat energy charged through the place.
“You can see that they have a sense of pride,” said Sklar. “There’s nothing better as a parent than looking at your child do something good and feel good doing it.”
Sklar said she and Geyser have been seeing more and more in the media about the importance of empathy and its effect on happiness, emotional intelligence, success and community involvement.
“Getting children involved in volunteering definitely helps them develop empathy, which will impact their lives for years to come,” Sklar said. “Through our volunteer events and projects, we not only help to instill the importance of helping others, but also the importance of treating all people, regardless of their age, gender, race, or circumstances with the same respect and compassion.”
One of their favorite things, both women said, is watching their kids interact with those they are helping. All differences seem to fall away.
According to studies, of the 44% of adults who volunteer for a cause, two-thirds started at young age. And children who volunteer are more likely to feel connected to their communities, do better in school and are less likely to engage in risky behavior. So volunteering while young clearly provides lasting effects.
“It’s beautiful to watch our volunteers have so much fun spending time with seniors, read with their friends they’ve met at a family shelter, or make something special for a child they know is not feeling well,” Sklar said. “They see the person for who they are, not what they look like or what their circumstances may be. I always say that the world would be a better place if more adults could see the world through the eyes of children.”
It’s much easier to have the conversation with teenagers about giving back, about being empathetic, if they’ve been volunteering at an early age, Sklar pointed out. If not, “it’s going to be really hard” to start from scratch, she said.
If they start early, “they don’t think twice” about giving back to their community once they grow up, Sklar said.
Geyser said, “We always say when our boys get older we hope they do the same thing with their kids and so on, so you’re kind of building these generations of philanthropists.”
When they began investigating the viability of a family volunteer organization, Geyser and Sklar, who have advertising (Sklar) and marketing (Geyser) backgrounds, began organizing small events and asking friends to come. The first was at Central Arizona Shelter Services, a test run to see if there was a market for their idea.
Geyser said they wanted to gauge satisfaction among the volunteers and, just as important, the nonprofit itself “to make sure they were happy with whatever we did.”
They didn’t have an organization in the Valley to model.
“We started Families Giving Back because we couldn’t find those opportunities,” Sklar said. “So we ended up looking across the country to find out where there were organizations like ours and contacted them and did some learning and information sharing to see how they got started and what kind of events they were doing.”
Geyser said they talked with Little Helping Hands in Austin and Doing Good Together in the Twin Cities in Minnesota. They took the tips that come out of those conversations and used their event experience with Central Arizona Shelter Services to prove to skeptical nonprofits — who were not in love with the concept of having young children come and volunteer — that the idea worked. The women assured the nonprofits they wanted to work with that they would handle everything.
“We come in we provide all the materials,” Geyser said. “We organize all the volunteers, we have all that registration taken care of and so it’s really a benefit to them without any extra work on their part other than maybe being there on a Saturday.”
Geyser said they were first group to go into Phoenix Children’s Hospital and show that it can work. The hospital liked what they were doing and asked if they could do a second shift with big donor families or families that have always wanted to help at the hospital, but never quite knew how.
When they started out, Sklar said, “we would ask our friends to please come to our event” so she and Geyser could get a clear understanding of how it would work.
“Now we post an event or send an email out to our mailing list and in a couple hours we’ve filled up 200 spots,” Geyser said. “And those same friends are calling and saying, ‘I can’t get in.’ It’s a great problem to have and that’s why we want to grow, to be able to have engage more families.”
“Pretty early on we confirmed our belief that there’s a lot of those families out there that want to help,” Geyser said. “They just don’t know where to go, what to do and we’ve made it easy. It’s a weekend event, it’s an hour, it can fit into a schedule. It’s definitely shown how much people want to help. As many events as we’ve done over the five years it never gets old for us.”